Ending as Beginning

How my mother’s journey is helping me find strength and perspective

Some moments are easier than others. Those are the moments when I’m on top of everything. A loving daughter, a compassionate family member, the most responsible human being on earth. A superhero with organizational prowess and limitless patience.

The other moments, the hard ones, pull me down like a two-ton anchor. I fall into a tailspin of inadequacy, and I am exhausted. Paying the bills, picking up the prescriptions, cleaning the litterbox of her two aging kitties, scheduling the doctor’s appointments, helping her cull the faded family photos we’ve looked at a dozen times before. There are multiple black-and-white images of Dad and her in the early days of their courtship. Snapshots of my older brother as an infant. A picture of me in a stroller on the street where my parents rented part of a two-flat before getting their house. My younger sister’s first recital.

These images both pause and speed up time. For a gentle, fleeting moment, I can recall when my siblings and I were young, and Mom and Dad, the vital, strong adults in our lives. We were loved, and we felt safe. Now when I glance over at my mother, seated next to me on the couch that’s been with her for two decades, I note the stark contrast between who she is in the photos and who she has become.

After my father died, the woman I knew disappeared for a while. And then she slowly reemerged, but as a subdued, less confident version of herself. At times she seemed utterly unmoored. My own marriage having lasted just five years, I didn’t know how to relate to a widow aching from the death of her partner of half a century. In her grief she seemed unrecognizable.

I missed the stern matriarch with whom I used to do battle. The killjoy who nagged me to clean my room, turn off the TV, and practice the piano. Showdowns over music lessons and church had been much easier to navigate than conversations with a woman whose happiness seemed to have died with her husband. In some of my more desperate moments, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and remind her that not all of us are lucky enough to find a soulmate with whom we can share our lives. Of course I restrained myself.

My mother was drowning and I could barely swim, so I went in search of a life raft that could bring us both to a calmer shore.

I remember a car ride one night about a year after Dad’s death. I was driving, and Mom was in the passenger seat. I was reminiscing about one of his many quirky habits, my eyes welling up with tears. Without missing a beat, she posed a question that almost caused me to miss our turn: “If I had died first, would you have missed me as much?” I was mortified, and reluctant even to ponder an answer.

Dad and I had shared a passion for words, bad puns, poetry, and stories about travel. As a young child, I was also close to Mom. But once I started school, I pulled away. I felt conflicted about my biracial identity, and I blamed her. Distancing myself from the parent who had sat vigil by my bed throughout my serious childhood illnesses would become one of the deepest regrets in my life.

It has been six years since I sold my parents’ home and helped Mom downsize. Today, she lives in an apartment just five minutes from my house. The hands that once sewed many of my grade-school clothes now grasp the handles of a fancy maroon walker and the silver safety bars in the bathroom.

One recent evening after dinner, Mom and I leaned back on the old couch trying to decide what to watch on TV. Self-conscious about her thinning hair, she suddenly exclaimed, “I hope I die before I go bald.” She was more than half-serious. I looked at her in disbelief. “Can you imagine if men thought that way? Then women really would rule the world.” We broke into fits of laughter.

A few months ago I hired a personal care aide to help me with the caregiving and light housekeeping. D visits my mom twice a week, and they adore each other. I am grateful for this life raft, one of many I’ve found in the past several years. And still I hold my breath, wondering what part of the journey may be next.

Fifty may be the new 30, but 90 is still just that — especially in a culture that avoids uncomfortable subjects like loneliness, thinning hair, age spots, infections, incontinence, and DNR orders.

Today I am no longer just my mother’s daughter. I am Power of Attorney, Rep Payee, Health Care Proxy. And after years of fighting and pulling away, I am also, finally, her friend.

My love and determination are unshakable, but the stress of knowing how to care for Mom is real; the burden and privilege are bound together. Helping the woman who fed me during the first hours of my life navigate the bittersweet homestretch of hers — it’s the most complex path I’ve ever known.

Outlining: a poem for my mother (and father)

stop growing old
just for a moment
or at least help me understand
my role, my stance
as I find my footing and search for space
between our tentative boundaries.

where do you end and
where do I begin?

I see you: at once an infinitely strong
and courageous woman
who adored her husband and
held our family together
with endless bowls of steaming white rice
and the swirling sounds of music
classical and elegant
sometimes dark and mysterious
this became your gift
enriching our minds, caressing our souls
just like your soft hands and tender kisses
when we were good, or hurt, or eager to sleep.

I look again, and glimpse a face that’s
wrinkled and confused
occasionally distant, yet still familiar
I catch my breath and gaze
the maternal beauty is still there
underneath the weight of time.

now spread across the kitchen table
are letters, bills, and looming decisions
a multitude of worries about how to manage
the gift and burden of
living so long, without him.

where do you end and
how do I begin

even to imagine
a life without you, too.